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More Riders, Fewer Stations for Intercity Bus Lines

Intercity bus ridership is up and should return to pre-pandemic levels by 2026. Other trends, including the closure of Greyhound stations in big cities such as Philadelphia, are less positive.

Getting on board a Megabus in Manhattan
People have to board curbside for bus lines without stations, as with these passengers in New York. (David Kidd/Governing)
In Brief:
  • Intercity bus services have regained 85-90 percent of riders since the pandemic, according to a report from DePaul University.

  • Station closures in some cities have left riders and officials scrambling for solutions and tarnished the image of bus services.

  • Growth in state-run bus services and integration with long-distance rail could generate more interest from lawmakers.

  • More people are taking long-distance bus trips than at any time since the start of the pandemic. Unfortunately, they have fewer places where they can get on and off.

    The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago released its annual Intercity Bus Review this month, finding that intercity bus services have recovered 85 to 90 percent of their ridership since the pandemic. Demand for non-work-related travel has rebounded and is likely to continue growing, the report concludes, with overall ridership likely to reach pre-pandemic levels in 2026.

    It’s good news for the industry, especially in the context of a series of intercity bus station closures and the continuing lag of ridership on most urban public-transit systems.

    “Industry leaders are breathing a sigh of relief,” says Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute. “Many feared intercity bus travel would suffer from the same ailments as public transit, with the new normal being much lower ridership. Thankfully, that’s not the case.”

    At the same time, “the image of legacy bus lines took a hit” last year, amid high-profile news stories about bus terminal closures, the report states. In Philadelphia, a long-standing downtown Greyhound terminal was closed. Pickup and drop-off operations for a half-dozen intercity bus services were suddenly moved to a curbside around the corner from Independence Hall.

    Kicked to the Curb

    The move was seen locally as a disaster, with riders waiting for long stretches on the sidewalk with no shelter or restrooms — and sometimes having a hard time finding information about where and when the bus was coming. The buses also idled in a lane that was meant to be dedicated to local transit.

    The problem hasn’t exactly been resolved. Curbside bus operations have been moved to another location with basic provisions, near a train stop but much farther away from downtown Philadelphia. City leaders are still looking for a permanent location for intercity bus operations.

    Other closures are expected in Dallas, Richmond, and Erie, Pa., according to the report. Chicago’s Greyhound terminal is endangered too. Little Rock, Ark., has no station at all. Megabus stopped running service there last year, leaving the city without intercity bus access.

    Those closures don’t just inconvenience riders, Schwieterman says. They also reduce the number of safe places for riders to transfer and make it more difficult for operators to link trips. “When you take away those transfers, you just make trips longer and less predictable,” he says.

    More Riders in the South

    Ridership recovery varies by region, with demand bouncing back more quickly in the South. Some southern lines have seen ridership significantly exceed pre-pandemic levels. One luxury service, Vonlane, expanded service substantially in the Texas Triangle region — “the largest expansion by a premium bus line” in the 16 years that the Chaddick Institute has been producing the annual report.

    Ridership has been boosted by general population growth in the South, including among car-free, “car-lite” and immigrant households, Schwieterman says. “We also notice in the South that there are bus lines catering toward Spanish-speaking populations, and they’re very adept at getting the word out."

    Meanwhile, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic still only have about 75 percent of pre-pandemic intercity bus ridership. That’s partly because work-related trips, like commuting trips in big city metro areas, are still down from the pandemic.

    “The Northeast suffers from a decline in super-commuters — people who travel to New York or Washington once or twice weekly, or less, to meet their job needs,” Schwieterman says. “Moving between cities was a way of life for huge numbers of people, but that’s declined with telework.”

    Looking Ahead

    Atlanta recently opened a new Greyhound station that the report says could be “a prototype for other cities,” with natural light, amenities, and connections to other transit services. But overall, the Chaddick Institute predicts that station closures will get worse before they get better. It also predicts that ridership is likely to level off after it returns to pre-pandemic levels, as it had been declining somewhat in the run-up to 2020.

    Some states are having success with state-run intercity bus services, including Virginia Breeze and Bustang in Colorado, both of which saw big increases in ridership in 2023. As the profile of those services continues to grow, Schwieterman says he expects more public officials to take interest in intercity bus travel, which “gets no respect from government,” as a Governing headline once declared.

    The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also provides fundings that cities and states could use to invest in transportation terminals. Rail services like Amtrak compete with intercity bus in some ways, but Schwieterman expects there to be more integration of bus and train travel in the coming years.

    That could including things like displaying bus options on Amtrak’s website; using buses to add service to infrequent train lines; and co-locating bus and train terminals. Ridership increases help make all those improvements possible.

    “For too long. intercity bus lines have been the forgotten stepchild in public policy,” Schwieterman says. “That’s changing as states move up the learning curve.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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